When we were first given this assignment, I knew I wanted to research a topic involving the Underground Railroad, because this particular time in history has always interested me. I thought I was going to do something like a song or a painting illustrating African Americans running away to the North, however I then stumbled upon the Battle Creek Underground Railroad Statue on the artist, Ed Dwight’s, website which illustrates famous abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman and the Hussey family leading fellow slave families to freedom. I’m not sure whether or not it was the fact that it is the nation’s largest monument or the intricate details on these runaways’ faces that showed genuine fear that intrigued me, but when I saw this statue I knew immediately that I wanted to do my blog post on this sculpture. The fact that men, women, and even children had the courage to risk their lives for freedom—a huge liberty that we all often take for granted today—amazes me and demonstrates how truly awful slavery and its impacts were on African Americans. It also makes me question my own courage and whether or not I would have enough valor to do the same if I were in their positions. Selecting this statue as a cultural artifact was very easy for me, because I believe the Underground Railroad was a very important factor during slavery and I’ve always found it so incredible that so many slaves were able to be helped.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation commissioned the Battle Creek Underground Railroad Monument and is the United State’s largest memorial dedicated to the Underground Railroad [Ed Dwight Website]. This sculpture is made entirely out of bronze and stands fifteen feet tall and twenty-eight feet in width. This statue was placed in Battle Creek, Michigan, because the town was the original grounds in which Erastus Hussey—a Quaker pioneer, abolitionist, and “conductor” of the Railroad—began the Underground Railroad [Battle Creek Michigan Website]. Along with the Hussey family, Harriet Tubman or “Black Moses” as we learned in class, was also known for helping hundreds of the thousands of slaves that passed through the Underground Railroad. As we know, this passageway was established in 1780 and consisted of multiple secret routes, meeting places, safe houses, and hidden tunnels that were developed to help slaves escape to the North. It began with one of the earliest abolitionist groups, the Quakers, who were known as the Religious Society of Friends during this time, who helped runaways escape. Along with the Hussey’s and the Quakers, Battle Creek was also home to another figure of the Anti-Slavery movement named Sojourner Truth, who we learned was an ex-slave who also utilized the Underground Railroad and became an advocate for black and women’s rights.
Ed Dwight, the creator and sculptor of this statue, has done a lot in his lifetime including: Air Force Test Pilot, IBM Computer Systems engineer, aviation consultant, restaurateur, real estate developer, construction entrepreneur, and was the first African American accepted into the astronaut training program. Born in Kansas City, Dwight left to serve in the Air Force in 1953 and from then on took up the multiple projects listed above. For the past thirty years however, Dwight has focused his time solely on his art and sculptures, with numerous prominent sculptures ever since he received his MFA in art at University of Denver. Ever since he was younger, Dwight wanted to be an artist, however his father pushed him to be an engineer. Although his focus was on engineering for the majority of his beginning life, he received his first art commission by the Colorado Centennial Commission to sculpt a group of statues called the “Black Frontier in the American West,” which portrayed African Americans’ work that created Western United States [Ed Dwight Website]. This opened up many people’s minds to the realization of African American’s contributions to our nation and also gained Dwight fame through his artistic abilities. From then on, Dwight began to take jobs portraying African American’s past history. As I mentioned above, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation hired Dwight to create a monument to the Underground Railroad, and the sculptor complied with using leaders who were essential in saving hundreds through the Railroad such as Harriet Tubman and the Hussey family.
As I mentioned above, Dwight was commissioned to sculpt this statue in 1994 as a tribute to the Underground Railroad and all those involved with maintaining this secret passage. The Underground Railroad began as something small, originally linked to a Quaker couple, known as Levi and Catherine Coffin, whose house was where they would hide the slaves they had aided in escaping. The Underground Railroad did not get its name, however until the 1830’s, when multiple businesses and homes were used as “stations” for slaves to hide or stay in [History Net Website]. This is also where the term “conductor,” (the phrase I’ve used to describe the Hussey family and Tubman) originated, because they controlled these stations in order to help guide slave fugitives from one house to another. It was also typical for these conductors to impersonate a slave on a plantation in order to help others escape. An example of a conductor who would do this was Harriet Tubman who returned to plantations nineteen times and led more than three hundred slaves through the Underground Railroad to freedom. While researching this, I was particularly fond of the story of how she would use “her shotgun to threaten death to any who lost heart and wanted to turn back” [History Net Website]. To me, this quote captures Tubman’s persistence in helping those who could not help themselves and also shows how strongly the African American community stuck together during slavery.
Others famous conductors who were stationed specifically in Battle Creek included the Hussey family, who had moved from New York to Michigan where they became very involved in the Railroad. Erastus Hussey was particularly dedicated to guiding fugitive slaves as far north as Canada, where they were ensured full safety from slavery. Something I have always puzzled over with the Underground Railroad system was the question of whether or not slave owners knew of the Railroad? According to Detroit 1701 website, they did. Southern states persisted that slaves were property and if found, should be required to be returned. Owners knew when, where, and how the Railroad operated so they would hire “slave catchers,” to find and bring back their slaves. This, of course, caused immense problems for those helping slaves escape. Those living in the North who were charged and convicted with aiding slaves run away would have to pay hundreds to thousands of dollars. Although, in many towns or cities where the abolitionist movement was popular, members of the Railroad did not have to fear of being convicted of any crimes dealing with fugitive slaves. For those caught aiding slaves who were not in the North, however, faced incredible punishments of lynching, mobs, whipping, and prison.
Other laws that we learned in class like the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which legally allowed patty rollers to retrieve fugitive slaves from free slave states and return them to their owners, did not help slaves escape to freedom. Contributing to this, the Supreme Court case of Dred Scott claimed that slaves were indeed property of their owners and had no legal civil rights; therefore runaway slaves that were caught by the federal government were forced to turn over fugitives. Due to these legal motions to support slavery and outlaw those who supported slaves’ freedom, the fugitives and the conductors of the Underground Railroad faced great dangers and alarming consequences. However this did not stop slaves from running away or abolitionists from helping slaves escape. These actions to promote slavery only fueled their fire to advocate more freely and publically that all people—black, white, etc—should not be held as slaves.
This statue of the Underground Railroad is significant and reflects slavery well, because Dwight shows how although it was a tremendous struggle beyond belief, African Americans fought for their freedom and eventually got to a better place. To me, the looks of fear sculpted in the fugitives’ faces shows how much they were willing to go through to reach freedom. I especially love the looks of pride and hope on Tubman and Hussey’s faces while leading their refugees to safety. The Railroad, specifically running away, was a form of resistance slaves would commit to endure their masters. Escaping to the North was a trend that grew within the slave community from a few hundred slaves to approximately tens of thousands of slaves. As we learned in our lectures, early run-away’s mostly consisted of males due to the fact that it was difficult for children to run away with their mothers and women would typically not leave their children behind. Slaves who were not caught, typically remained free for the rest of their lives, but other slaves who were caught faced alarming punishments such as whipping, branding, and severing off of the Achilles tendon. Again, this statue’s significance shows how truly brutal slavery was due to the fact that African Americans were willing to risk their lives for freedom. I think this statue captures the tireless feats African Americans have endured for centuries and in addition, illustrates the importance of those who helped save thousands of lives.
When I began researching the Underground Railroad, I had no idea that the Railroad was a known secret passageway within both black and white societies. In class, we learned about how slaves that ran away triggered more and more fellow slaves to do the same and I had always accepted this and never questioned how the slave owners reacted to the disappearances of their slaves. Even though we have learned about the incredibly savage treatments shown towards African Americans (i.e. lynching for looking at a white woman the wrong way, sticking babies in the snow while they were crying, etc), sending slave catchers to hunt down fugitives and bring them back seems particularly drastic to me. Despite these hardships though, I loved getting to research more about the Underground Railroad. There a few stories in which we learn where slaves are granted fair treatment or even happiness, so to research a form of resistance that slowed slaves to leave the slavery system entirely is particularly fascinating.
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“History of Battle Creek.” History. City of Battle Creek, Michigan, n.d. Web.
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“Underground Railroad Memorial, The Kellogg Foundation Headquarters, Battle Creek, MI | Ed Dwight Studios, Inc.” Underground Railroad Memorial, The Kellogg Foundation Headquarters, Battle Creek, MI | Ed Dwight Studios, Inc. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
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